By: Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir

The principles and teachings of Islam handed down by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), propose that every person should work hard and exert effort in order to gain a foothold in life. This is mentioned throughout many verses of the Qur’an and within the Hadith text of The Prophet (PBUH). 

We need to bear in mind though, that the workforce and work ethics nowadays are indeed very different to that of the time of Muhammad (PBUH).  Therefore it is not easy to find a suitable parable and analyse one with the other.  Moreover, it can be said that it is not possible to find a practical comparison from the teachings of The Prophet (PBUH) that is interconnected with contemporary labour force issues.

Like the issue of worker’s rights, for example health rights, maternity leave, maximum and minimum work hours, work productivity, wage relations in regard to quality of the worker’s life, the influence of technology for working women, employer-employee relations as well as state relations in regard to worker’s rights.  Issues such as these did not arise during the time of The Prophet (PBUH), so it is not appropriate if we try to search for them directly within the text of the Hadith and teachings of The Prophet (PBUH). 

For example, at the time of The Prophet (PBUH) there were no steps made toward the emancipation or abolition of slavery, which now is considered one of the worst violations of humanity.  Although, the process of ‘shutting the door’ on slavery had indeed begun as well as humane treatment toward slaves.  The teachings of The Prophet (PBUH) were very revolutionary, when compared to other civilisations around the world during that time.  But when compared to the present day, it is not possible to make these types of comparisons.  At the time of The Prophet (PBUH) slaves were slaves, they did not have the right to choose for themselves and did not possess rights to property.  Nowadays, treatment like this is considered a great offence and one that is totally unjust toward mankind.

The teachings of The Prophet (PBUH) conclude that slavery is indeed appalling.  The teachings of the Hadith are deemed a process of social transformation, which began at the time of The Prophet (PBUH) and must be carried on during the time following, including the present day.  There must be a similar perspective, if we wish to find within the text of the Hadith those issues pertaining to women in the workforce.  This is because the matters pertaining to female workers, as mentioned, did not surface during the time of The Prophet (PBUH). So it is very difficult to find relevant texts from the Hadith also when discussing these types of issues.

The principles and teachings of Islam handed down by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), propose that every person should work hard and exert effort in order to gain a foothold in life. This is mentioned throughout many verses of the Qur’an and within the Hadith text of The Prophet (PBUH).  There are more than fifty places in the Qur’an where faith is described as always being connected to amal shalih (a virtuous deed), which literally implies any positive work.  Amal shalih transcendently means the ritual and divine service to Allah, while amal shalih horizontally implies the social, political and economic devotion for the importance of self-reinforcement, autonomy and justness in society.  

In one of the verses of the Qur’an, it is explained and suggested how work should be carried out after fulfilling ritual prayers.  “Alas, the faithful ones, when you are called to prayer on Friday, quickly attend, remember Allah and stop your activities.  Thus it is better for you, if you understand.  When you have already carried out your prayers, quickly disperse around this earth, search for those gifts Allah has bestowed us and think of Allah as often as possible.  By this you may become a successful person” (QS. Al-Jum’ah, 62: 9-10).  Looking at this verse, it can be said that all activities in life are commanded directly by Allah, or similarly with the command of prayer. 

The suggestion that everyone should work is intended as a way to ensure one’s survival in this world, to create self-sufficiency and to spare oneself from poverty and begging.  In one text of the Hadith, The Prophet (PBUH) said: “There is no finer food that one can consume than that which has resulted from the exerted effort of one’s own hand.  Actually the prophet Dawad was always able to eat from the result of his own efforts and labour” (Jami’ al-Ushul, XI/224, Hadith no. 8108).  And this from a different verse from the Hadits: “actually, a person who searches for firewood and uses rope to carry it on their back to sell at the market, is far better off than begging for something from someone else – which will sometimes be given and will sometimes be refused” (Bukhari, Hadith no. 1470).

There are several messages that can be taken from these two Hadith.  Among these, earning an income for oneself is deemed important in the eyes of The Prophet (PBUH).  In practice and on a social level income generating becomes a strong bargaining tool in itself to gain access to social, political and economical resources.  A woman’s experience becomes very evident in this respect.  In both the domestic and public sectors, a woman’s bargaining position is often quite weak due to a lack of autonomy regarding financial needs.  This lack of self-sufficiency results in yet another stereotype toward women; that women should only be confined to household duties, that they do not need to work, do not need to possess wealth and do not need to earn a wage to help supplement the family income because a woman is not obliged to provide basic needs for her family.

One way to change this stereotype is to ensure that women can become self-sufficient, so that they do not grow to be economically reliant on someone else.  With this achieved, women will have the freedom to determine their own fate and will possess some bargaining power.  But in practice, women still experience obstacles when attempting to become self-reliant.  These obstacles (usually external) often obstruct women’s progress, so that difficulties may occur while attempting to become self-reliant.  Women also often become trapped as victims of violence in the work force.  

In these two Hadith, both men and women are instructed to strive to earn for themselves.  In circumstances where this is hard to achieve, the government then becomes responsible and should create opportunities for individuals in order to find a way in which to support them.  With self-reliant mechanisms a person can, at least, avoid the feeling of indignity and the impact of authoritarianism from other people.

Tauhid and Khilafah (Belief in One God and Political Leadership in Islam)

In his book “Islam and Economic Challenge”, Umar Chapra states that (in Islam) there are three basic principles pertaining to economic pursuits; tauhid (belief in one God), khilafah (political leadership) and equality.  Tauhid is the most basic principle and foundation of every Muslim’s activities.  Tauhid literally means to acknowledge the oneness of God.  It is the declaration that there is but one God, one greatness, one master, one absoluteness and that is Allah.  Vertically, tauhid is that servitude to God by starting and ending every activity in the name of God.  Tauhid in a horizontal sense implies the equality between mankind regardless of class, ethnic group or gender.  There should be no unconditional surrender to any other than Allah; that way everyone will be equal and society will be more egalitarian.  There should be no slavery, degradation or harassment of others nor eradication at the hands of man, by any means.  

Equality between men and women begins from tauhid; the belief in one God.  There should not be any special privileges or rights for one gender over the other, favouring or lessening of rights or gender bias harassment and violence.  Equality is the basic foundation of the task that mankind faces as khilafah of this earth.  The principle of khilafah asserts that mankind, both men and women, were not created to be ineffective (‘abats).  Khilafah is the duty of representing Allah on earth, creating a prosperous life and guaranteeing sustainability.

“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: I will make mankind the leaders of the earth” (QS. Al-Baqarah, 2: 30).  “It is the Lord who hath produced you from the earth and settled you therein and asked you to prosper in it” (Q.S. Hud, 11: 61).

The duty of khilafah is the same for both men and women.  It is even mentioned in the Qur’an that men and women are friends and partners who should work together in order to complete the duties set out for them.  “The believers, men and women, are protectors of one another: they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity and obey God and His Messenger.  On them God will pour his mercy: for God is exalted in power and is wise” (QS. At-taubah, 9: 71).  Amar ma’ruf is one task of khalifah leadership, which is usually done through business endeavours in order to sustain oneself, become independent and avoid being deprived, insulted or stigmatised. 

Al-‘adalah (or equality), aside from being one of the most basic principles is also the first objective of khilafah (or Islamic leadership) and activities in social, economic and political sectors.  Equality is also mentioned in the Qur’an as wasathan.  This is the sacrament that every Muslim should testify to be honest and fair to everyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and gender (see Al-Baqarah, 2: 143).  Equality is a basic principle that should always be defended, so if there is ever any person, any group or one gender that are being denied their rights, then in the name of equality they must struggle for their rights, maintain and defended them.

If women, due to this particular social structure, cannot freely see to their rights and carry out their leadership obligations, then the main concern regarding women becomes a certainty; in order that equality can be maintained and mandate leadership once again can become a woman’s right, likewise a man’s rights.  When based on these basic principles outlined above, Islam from the outset asserted the same rights for both men and women regarding work ethics.  There is no single verse or text from the Hadith that prohibits women from being involved in economic and business activities.  Even verses in the Qur’an indicate those tasks performed by women; the two daughters of the prophet Syuaib who shepherded goats (read: QS Al-Qashash, 23-28), the Queen of Saba who worked in politics and government (read: QS An-Naml, 20-44) and women that worked as wet nurses (read: QS Al-Baqarah, 233) and spinners/weavers (read: QS Ath-Thalaq, verse; 6).

The purpose of labour is ownership, because if it is used as a woman’s right in the same way as a man’s right, then ownership also becomes a women’s right to complete freedom.  When the society of Jahiliah had the custom of using women and their bodies as a part of the inheritance left behind by the deceased husband, Islam came to put an end to this shameful custom; “Those who believe are forbidden to inherit women against their will.  Nor should you treat them with harshness or take away their dowry that was given to them.  On the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity” (QS An-Nisa, 4:19).

When something becomes the property of the woman, by way of exchange or justified contract, then it becomes her full and legal possession.  No one has the right to interfere, utilise or take it without her permission.  With regard to this, what often occurs is that the husband believes that it is his right to take his wife’s property, so it has become normal to simply take it without permission.  This behaviour has been severely criticised by the Qur’an which even goes so far as to mention a wife’s dowry bequeathed by the husband, which although may have been a significant amount, is not allowed to be taken by the husband without the permission of his wife.  

“And give the women (on marriage) their dowry as a free gift.  But if they, of their own good pleasure remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it with right good cheer” (QS. An-Nisa, 4:4).

“But if you decide to take one wife in place of another, even if you have given the latter a whole treasure of dowry, take not the least bit of it back.  Would you take it by slander and manifest wrong?” (QS. An-Nisa, 4:20).

These verses indicate that women possess the full freedom to their own property and wealth.  The issue regarding a woman’s wish to give any part of her property to someone else for their own personal use or for her own reason, is her absolute right.  On the contrary, due to their vulnerability, women are often exploited and their property taken advantage of by others.  Without realising it, a woman is often not even aware of her own ownership rights because her possessions are not recorded or assigned to her name.  Therefore, if a disagreement occurs over her inherited wealth, it can change hands just like that.

This issue was experienced by Syekh Arsyad al-Banjari an important Islamic scholar of the 19th century when he observed the behaviour of Banjar society, where husband and wife would sell together on small boats.  According to al-Banjari, when either of them died, before the inheritance was allocated, it was to be distributed equally and fairly between the two.  This fatwa or guidance then inspired other Islamic scholars to put into effect the idea of gono-gini or ‘joint property’ between husband and wife. Without this fatwa, the result of a woman’s labour was merged and considered owned by her husband.  The consequence of this is that a woman is not able to own anything that has resulted from her own exertions, except that which has been given to her voluntarily from her husband.

Women can give to the people they love, husband, children or parents.  However the act of giving and willingness on the part of the woman can only be carried out after her ownership has been clarified.  In technical terms regarding inheritance, there is an expression; “a person may distribute to whomever they willingly wish to, after clarification of share has been attained” (innama ar-ridha ba’da al-qismah).  But often there are many sides that hamper women’s rights, or deceive women until finally they themselves (without realising it) forget their own rights, which are then also forgotten by others.  In this context, the siding toward women should be through awareness education and the demand of a friendly policy towards them.

Women’s priorities

Social construction is often unjust toward women, even violent, which means that women are continually hidden and degraded.  In this context, there are directives that instruct women to only be involved in domestic activities (“sumur, kasur, dapur” = well, mattress & kitchen; referring to ‘women’s household duties’) and not be permitted to develop themselves in the public sphere (both socially and economically, let alone politically), therefore the results of their work efforts are often not enjoyed by themselves.  Women are often conditioned to make sacrifices for other people; their parents, their children and also their husbands.  They themselves are inadvertently unaware of their own rights, which should benefit them.  They then choose not to strive for these rights but rather they are more inclined to choose to serve their children and husbands.  Whereas when there is no husband, or the woman is divorced, she cannot depend on anyone but herself.  Even when struggled for, women also often choose to not register property in their own name.  Women generally sacrifice everything for the people whom they love.

Sacrifice on the part of women is very significant and valuable, but often is not matched by the sacrifice of others against them.  Due to this, self-sufficiency and independence for women becomes very important before making sacrifices.  This is in order to guarantee the perpetuation of life and see that the mandatory message of Islamic leadership (kekhalifahan) can be perfectly implemented.  In this context, sides need to be taken toward women, especially by women themselves and also by structural policies, which will further guarantee the continuity of their lives.

This siding is needed in order that there is no more hopelessness, no more harassment, no more ignorance and no more poverty, which are all experienced by women.  Sacrifices are of great meaning, if done by those who have the capacity, skills and self-sufficiency.  If ones wishes to be educated one must be clever, if one wishes to give something then one must first own what they would like to give and if one wishes to give protection one must be strong beforehand.  Regarding this, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) uttered: “Start with yourself, meet your own needs, then if there is excess give it to your family, if you have more then give it to your relatives, if there is still more then give it to your neighbours” (Riwayat al-Bukhari, read: Jami al-Ushul, 9/57, Hadith no. 5924).

With great effort, engaging in trade or work can be the foundation of strength for women, therefore it must be carried out to full capacity.  Likewise, it is especially important for policy maker’s to give women support and opportunities.  In this case it could also be said that siding with women is the only method of eliminating all forms of violence that happen to the women, including violence in the workplace.  With this basic principle of tauhid and khilafah, there is a tendency to those that are weak.  A framework could be compiled pertaining to fiqh, which is fairer, especially towards women.  Hopefully it can happen! 

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